About a month ago I came across Michael Ruhlman's BLT from Scratch -- Summertime Challenge! on his blog. The idea is to make a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich from scratch: grow the tomato and lettuce, bake the bread, whip up the mayo, and, yes, cure the bacon yourself. He's not asking anyone to grind their own wheat or slaughter a hog -- he wants anyone to be able to participate, not just those who have a farm at their disposal.
I was amused by the notion and immediately sent a link to the post to my friend Sherri. Within 15 minutes I had a response: she and her husband Rich were in! They are both avid vegetable gardeners, Sherri is an excellent baker, and, believe it or not, Rich's hobby is smoking meat. This is a challenge almost custom-designed for the two of them. Rich is also a terrific food photographer, so I know that, if nothing else, the picture of their end result stands a good chance of winning one of Ruhlman's prizes.
I toyed with the idea of participating myself, but at the time all my spring lettuce was bolting and I hadn't planted a summer crop, and my tomatoes were as yet nowhere to be seen. Now, though, my vegetable garden is filling in nicely: I have several kinds of salad greens sprouting in two different planting beds, and my tomato plant is groaning under the weight of all the Romas that are coming in. I'm a pretty good baker and am not intimidated by yeast breads, and Sean loves making mayo from scratch. Still: curing bacon? That seemed a little beyond me . . . until today.
Today I finished Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter, a really wonderful memoir by a young woman who creates a small farm (with crops, livestock, a poultry-and-egg operation, and bees) in a crummy section of Oakland, California. Novella and her boyfriend Bill raise a couple of hogs and have them slaughtered for the meat. A local chef teaches her how to make various Italian cured meats, and her descriptions of preparing and eventually eating her salami, prosciutto, etc. left my mouth watering. But when I read her account of makin' bacon I actually felt light-headed:
"As I sat down to breakfast that morning with a gleam in my eye, poised to put a wavy piece of pork belly into my mouth, I thought of my Las Vegas bacon-eating frenzy oh so long ago. How could I have known that I would end up here, exhausted by five months of pig-raising effort and finally getting to eat something that I had transformed from mundane to extraordinary? I sank my teeth into the unctuous fat, the crispy meat. It was just as bacon should be -- smoky and sweet, salty and peppery.
"Bill walked into the kitchen, sleepy, his hair tousled. He had been bummed that we had to wait a few months before we could cut into the salamis and slice up the pancettas that were hanging in Chris's walk-in. But the bacon was ready to go.
"'How is it?' he asked.
"I shrugged. 'Pretty eff-ing good.'
"He chomped on a piece, then wolfed it down and grabbed another. We were finally enjoying the fruits of our labors. The hard work of feeding two pigs had paid off. Bill and I kissed in celebration, both of our mouths salty and sweet from the bacon. I fired up the cast-iron pan again to make more bacon, and as it fried, filling our kitchen with the scent of sizling pork, we never felt so lucky. We had achieved the heights of urban farming together. The meat -- it was official -- was amazing. God, we were unbearable."
After reading that passage, I knew I had to try my hand at curing some bacon because, clearly, it's not just about the meat: it's about love and passion and sensory overload. I have a new book (Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It and Other Cooking Projects) that contains step-by-step instructions for making bacon that don't look too difficult for a novice like me, so that's where I'll start. I have until the end of August to complete my BLT challenge, so I'll let you know how it goes. Mmmmm, I can almost taste that pork now . . . .